In a decade of bouncing from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey, Sohrab Barati, 26, has come to know just about every possible fate likely to befall Afghan migrants as they inch toward Western Europe.
Penniless families sleep in parks. Boys as young as 16 squander their scant wages at nightclubs and bars. Young men his age are recruited to different sides of the battlefields in Iraq and Syria.
Barati sees the scenarios playing out like an old film reel.
The downfalls he has witnessed since leaving Afghanistan have prompted him to serve as a guide, advocate and interpreter for Afghans in Istanbul, a major way station between their conflict-ridden homeland and the promise of the West.
“I realized I could either stand by myself or I could help others in need,” Barati said over a plate of qabeli pulao, a traditional rice dish, at an Afghan-owned cafe in Istanbul where diners chat in Dari and Pashto, the main languages of Afghanistan.
“So many have been fed lies by people who came before. They say, ‘The government will provide for you; life is good in Turkey.’ But I see it as my duty to tell the truth about this life.”
Among the more than 14,000 Afghans in Turkey seeking resettlement in a third country, Barati has earned a name by setting up a Facebook page for the community of migrants in Zeytin Burnu, a neighborhood 30 minutes from central Istanbul where he lives, providing advice and serving as an interpreter on various problems such as immigration issues and medical emergencies.
Most of what he does is on a volunteer basis, but he recently began charging to interpret at hospitals and police stations to make ends meet.
It was a chance encounter with a “shifty,” flirtatious Turkish girl in a tailoring workshop soon after he arrived five years ago that helped Barati gain the language skills that would enable him to serve as an interpreter.
“It weirded me out how she kept staring at me all day,” he recalled.
Barati’s conservative upbringing in Afghanistan led to culture shock in Turkey, a more secular Muslim nation. Turks were surprised that he hesitated even to shake the girl’s hand, even though they dated for a year and a half. She taught him dirty Turkish words, drawing laughter from Turks.
After two years of living in border areas with few other foreigners and mastering Turkish, Barati found himself embraced by locals. He was invited to weddings, lavish Muslim circumcision ceremonies for newborns and flag-waving street celebrations honoring new Turkish army recruits.
But things changed in 2011. As the so-called Arab Spring uprisings spread, Syrian refugees began flooding into Turkey. Afghans, long the world’s largest refugee group, suddenly felt forgotten in Turkey.
Last spring, Afghans staged a 53-day protest against the United Nations refugee agency, accusing it of lengthy delays in processing Afghan asylum applications. Barati served as an interpreter and liaison for the protesters, mostly young Afghan men, a dozen of whom briefly sewed their lips shut and went on hunger strikes.
Afghan refugees soon found themselves pulled by all sides of the deepening conflict in Syria and Iraq. Last year, one of Barati’s relatives, an 18-year-old Shiite Muslim who had been living in Iran, was killed shortly after he arrived in Syria to fight on the side of beleaguered President Bashar Assad.
Barati, an ethnic Hazara Shiite, recalled his time in Shiite-majority Iran, where locals called him by the pejorative “Afghani” and insulted him with practically every sentence. He has heard reports in the media and from fellow refugees that Iranians pressure vulnerable Afghans, most younger than 20, to go off and fight for Assad against the Sunni militants of Islamic State.
“The Iranians tell them, ‘It’s your religious obligation as a Shiite,’” he said. “Or worse, ‘We will deport you if you don’t fight.’”
In Sunni-majority Pakistan, it’s the reverse: Pakistanis try to encourage Afghan Sunnis to fight for Islamic State, said Barati and another Afghan migrant from eastern Afghanistan.
Several times, Arab, Afghan and Turkish smugglers have asked Barati to find them customers for the perilous voyage across the Aegean Sea to Greece, the next stop on the migrant trail toward the more desirable destinations of Western Europe. He has refused.
“They’ve offered me free passage to any country I wanted, but knowing what lies ahead for them I can’t bring myself to do it,” Barati said. “Maybe I will help hundreds of people, but if even one dies in the sea or is trapped in Greece it will have outweighed any possible good I could have done.”
His life in Turkey is secure by comparison, but lonely. He has formed a small community in both Zeytin Burnu and the capital, Ankara, maintaining ties with other Afghans. But he has lost contact with his family.
His mother and siblings left their home in the volatile Behsud district of Wardak province soon after he reached Turkey. He long ago cut ties with his father, a local elder whose confrontational attitude earned him enemies among both the local government and Taliban insurgents.
He has asked migrants and smugglers in his network, as well as U.N. staff members, to track down his family. But he, too, is trying to move on from Turkey. His application for asylum in Turkey languishing, he also has petitioned U.S. authorities to grant him asylum, contending that he would not be safe in his Taliban-dominated home district.
The $300 or so he makes each month at the tailoring workshop, along with fees he occasionally collects as an interpreter, provides him enough to survive. But he is far from being able to save for the future or to start a family.
In Turkey, he said, “I may be accepted, but I will never be comfortable. I will never be able to build anything for myself. I will just continue working to make enough to live but not enough to have a real, sustainable future.”
His experience has not only helped other Afghans, it has left him with the realization that life as a migrant means constant uncertainty.
“Whenever someone has just arrived, I always tell them, ‘If you can find a way back, go back; this life isn’t easy and it’s not for everyone,’” he said. “Afghans should only throw themselves in the fire if their lives are truly in danger at home.”
Latifi is a special correspondent.